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The Ecclesiality of the Catechism

by Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller

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  • Description:
    This address was given by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on May 17, 2014, at St Patrick’s College Seminary in Maynooth, Ireland.
  • Publisher & Date:
    Vatican, May 17, 2014

It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you today. I am conscious of the great history of the Irish Church and the generous contribution Ireland has made to the Universal Church. As you may know, before I was made Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine, I had the great privilege of being the bishop of Regensberg. One of the most beautiful churches in my diocese there, was the Abbey of St James or the Schottenkirche, as it was known. This abbey was founded in 1070 by gaelic Irish monks so there is a personal dimension to this sense of gratitude to the Irish Church that I mention.

The subject of this talk is The Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is more than two decades since Pope Saint John Paul II published the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum with which he officially presented The Catechism of the Catholic Church to the faithful. And 2014 in fact marks exactly the twentieth anniversary of the Catechism’s publication in English. In the light of this latter anniversary especially, it seems an opportune moment to underline the enduring value of this important “contribution to that work of renewing the whole life of the Church, as desired and begun by the Second Vatican Council”1 Moreover, speaking here in this context, a seminary, wherein takes place the intellectual formation of the next generation of young men who will have a privileged role in preaching the Gospel, my mind turns to those remarks of my predecessor as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the then Cardinal Ratzinger. Again twenty years ago he noted, “the deeper reception of the Catechism in the life of the Church still lies ahead. Preaching and proclamation have yet to discover in it an aid to comprehending and communicating the faith as a living organic whole.”2 My purpose will have been well served this afternoon if I am able to make even a modest contribution to this “deeper reception of the Catechism”.

What is the Catechism?

The first question that arises is, of course, what is the Catechism. This is not a silly question. It is a rather good place to begin. In as much as it is a physical object, obviously the Catechism is a written document, a book. There are, however, many different kinds of book. So what, then, is it that sets this particular book apart as The Catechism of Catholic Church? Implicit here are two questions: what is a Catechism? And why is this Catechism that of the Catholic Church?

In response to the first of these questions, in the Catechism itself we find written “Quite early on, the name catechesis was given to the totality of the Church's efforts to make disciples, to help men believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that believing they might have life in his name, and to educate and instruct them in this life, thus building up the body of Christ” (CCC 4). Whilst a catechism must present “the contents of Catholic doctrine” (CCC 111), nonetheless properly understood it is more than a dry text book containing points of doctrine. It is an instrument that serves as aid to the “Church’s effort to make disciples.” This effort, this task of evangelisation is not an activity the Church has herself chosen to undertake. From the beginning of the Church’s life the Apostles are described as the “eyewitnesses” to “ the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Cfr. Lk 1:1-2), that is to the life, ministry, passion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. In Acts, the Lord then tells his Apostles “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses […] to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1; 8). It is the same Lord who in Matthew’s Gospel commissions the Apostles to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:19). The Catechism is, therefore, an instrument in the service of a fundamental mission entrusted to the Church by the Lord Jesus himself.

In response to our second question, we should note that The Catechism of the Catholic Church is not just one among many catechisms or catechetical tools; it has a privileged status. Any diocese can, should it be judged necessary, produce it own catechetical tools adapted to the needs of the local situation or perhaps tailored to the requirements of a particular age group or category of person. We are not here talking about these types of catechisms; we are here talking of The Catechism, with the emphasis on the definite article. There is something that sets this Catechism apart. We should note Pope St John Paul ordered the publication of this Catechism “by virtue of [his] Apostolic Authority.” He called it “a sure norm for teaching the faith” and called on “all the Church’s pastors and the Christian faithful to receive this catechism in a spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel life”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, therefore, has a special authority and is directed to the whole Church. It is the patrimony not of any particular group within the Church, but rather of the whole Church.

After this cursory examination of the question we have arrived at what will serve us as a working definition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: it is an instrument given to the whole Church which is a sure norm for teaching the faith and making disciples.

A first response to the Catechism

This definition of the Catechism, however, raises a series of questions. Alluding to the authority on which this document is published and its universal purview might give the impression that the Catechism is in some way alien to Ireland and has somehow been imposed from on high. Is this not then some form of cultural imperialism? How can this be “a sure norm for teaching the faith” here in Ireland? Moreover, how can this document written more than twenty years ago be “a sure norm” for today. In 1993 the internet was in its infancy; there were no social media; Ireland was a more homogeneous and less multi-cultural society; the changes that have taken place in past years were unimagined twenty years ago. Internationally it was a world before 9/11. One could go on multiplying examples, but the point is clear: the passing of time raises issues about how a twenty year old document might provide “a sure norm” for today. Finally, as noted above, the Catechism is directed to “all the Church’s pastors and the Christian faithful”. Does this not necessitate that it be so general in its formulation that it could not possibly apply as “a sure norm” to the individual circumstances or my life? These questions, ultimately, touch upon three related issues that we will have cause to return to later in this paper: the positivity of the Catechism; the historical and culturally conditioned nature of the Catechism; finally, the socially shared status of the Catechism as public discourse.

The Catechism as an ecclesial document

The theme of this paper is the ecclesiality of the Catechism, that is, of its very nature the Catechism is a document of the Church. If we wish to grasp the full import of the Catechism we cannot simply read it as we would any other text. Its ecclesiality has subtle implications for how we approach this document. In what follows we shall see how the Catechism has its origin in the Church, takes its content from the Church, and in its structure acts out the life of the Church. Precisely in the ecclesiality of this document, one finds the resolution of the three issues raised above.

The ecclesial origins of the Catechism

Pope Saint John Paul II, in January 1985, convoked an Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the 20th anniversary of the close of the Council. On that occasion the Synod Fathers expressed the desire that “a catechism or compendium of all Catholic doctrine regarding both faith and morals be composed, that it might be, as it were, a point of reference for the catechisms or compendiums that are prepared in various regions.”3 In July 1986, in response to this request from the bishops of the world, a Commission to oversee the drawing up of the Catechism was established. The decision was reached that this Catechism should be written not by scholars but by pastors, and so an editorial team was assembled, made up of bishops from as far afield as Argentina, France, Beirut and even Leeds in England. In this way the universality, the Catholicity, of the Church was expressed even in the drawing up of the Catechism. Moreover, to cite a single instance, during the drawing up of the text in 1989 a first draft of the text was sent out for consultation and over one thousand bishops responded to that draft of the text. The then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:

it is obvious that this work represents a signal event of Episcopal ‘collegiality’ and that in it the voice of the Universal Church speaks to us in all its fullness. […] the Catechism is de facto a collegial work; canonically, it falls under the special jurisdiction of the Pope, inasmuch as it was authorized for the whole Christian world by the Holy Father in virtue of the supreme teaching authority invested in him. In this sense, the Catechism seems to me to furnish by its juridical character a good example of harmonious cooperation between primacy and collegiality corresponding both to the spirit and the letter of the Second Vatican Council. The Pope is not speaking over the heads of bishops. On the contrary, he invites his brothers in the episcopate to join him in letting the symphony of the faith ring out. He draws together the whole and secures it with his authority, which is not something imposed from without but rather is something that gives the common witness its concrete, public validity.4

Far from being an imposition of the Roman Curia, the Catechism is the fruit of the Universal Church. It contains the collective wisdom of bishops, representing also the faithful of their individual particular churches, from all over the world. However, it should also be noted, the Catechism’s representation of the universal Church is not simply a cumulative matter, as if this character were dependant solely on the number of bishops contributing to the Catechism. Rather, the Catechism has its origin in the unique interplay of the college of bishops and its head, the successor of Peter. This structure, the college of bishops united to its head, is the embodiment of the Church’s universality. The individual bishops embody the particular Churches, but they form one college united with their head and as such embody the universality of the Church. Consequently, the Catechism, in its origins, bears the traces of the Church’s universality.

The ecclesial content of the Catechism

Furthermore, the content of the Catechism is drawn from the store house of the Church’s treasures. It contains quotations from the saints, those sons and daughters of the Church who have in a preeminent way lived the life of grace within the Church. Amongst the saints quoted, I would draw your attention particularly to the Fathers of the Church. These are the early teachers of the Church’s faith who are the first to inculturate the faith in the pagan world that surrounded them. In receiving and handing on the faith in these decisive early moments of the Church’s life they leave an indelible impression upon the faith that is handed down to us today. It quotes from modern authors as well such as Blessed John Henry Newman. The Catechism quotes Ecumenical Councils and the magisterial teaching of the Church. It draws on the Church’s liturgy both Eastern and Western. These prayers are the expression of the Church’s deepest identity, her relationship to God. Moreover, as public prayers they are the outward manifestation of her self-understanding. Most importantly and most frequently of all, of course, the Catechism quotes Sacred Scripture, mindful that “ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.”5 Drawing from so wide a range of sources the Catechism reflects the richness of the Church and in doing so is able to offer “an organic presentation of the Catholic faith in its entirety” (CCC 18).

The ecclesial structure of the Catechism

The Catechism’s structure is not arbitrary. It “is inspired by the great tradition of catechisms which build catechesis on four pillars: the baptismal profession of faith (the Creed), the sacraments of faith, the life of faith (the Commandments), and the prayer of the believer (the Lord's Prayer)” (CCC 4). Understood properly this is more than simply an expedient manner of presenting the content of the Church’s faith. As Pope Saint John Paul II wrote “The four parts are related one to the other: the Christian mystery is the object of faith (first part); it is celebrated and communicated in liturgical actions (second part); it is present to enlighten and sustain the children of God in their actions (third part); it is the basis for our prayer, the privileged expression of which is the Our Father, and it represents the object of our supplication, our praise and our intercession (fourth part).”6 More profoundly, then, this structure, which the Catechism adopts, mimics or in a sense acts out the form of life which the Church imparts. Hence again we are brought face to face with the profoundly ecclesial nature of the Catechism. Not only is its content drawn from the life of the Church but its very structure is molded around the life, the inner reality, of the Church.

The issues raised by the Catechism

Having explored the ecclesial character of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that is, having established that in its origin, content and structure it reveals itself to be intrinsically of the Catholic Church we now find ourselves in a better position to address those concerns raised at the beginning of this paper: the positivity of the Catechism; the historical and culturally conditioned nature of the Catechism; finally, the socially shared status of the Catechism as public discourse.

The positivity of the Catechism

Catholicism is not a philosophy. It is a revealed religion. This means the content of our faith is not the product of human ingenuity. It is beyond the scope this paper to fully explore the relationship between philosophy and theology, but these remarks are by no means meant to disparage the achievements, or necessity even, of rigorous philosophical thinking. Faith is in harmony with reason. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans talks of offering a “rationabile obsequium” (Rm 12; 2). Literally this means a “reasonable worship” is to be offered to the Lord. Reason, philosophical speculation, has an important role in preparing for Revelation. We know God’s creation in the light of human reason. It helps us to articulate the faith and is of great service in mediating the faith to others. However, truth to which we give our assent in faith is not based on the philosophical speculations of an isolated individual. As a revealed religion the Catholic faith is of its essence dialogical. The content of our faith pre-exists our apprehension of its truth. God reveals himself. God speaks, and only having first received God’s self-revelation in his Word, can the individual then give his or her assent. This is what St. Paul means when he says in the letter to the Romans (10:17) “ Faith comes from what is heard.” The believer does not make his or her own truth; rather there is a quality of “giveness”, a positivity, in Revelation that precedes the individual.

Catholics believe the Church was founded and willed by Jesus Christ. It is the mystical body of Christ through which he continues to be present. Quoting from acts of the trial of St. Joan Arc, the Catechism recalls the saint’s simple yet profound understanding of the Church’s nature “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing and we shouldn’t complicate the matter” (CCC 1474). Christ is the eternal Word that God speaks into human history to reveal himself. The Church continues this role: the Church is the custodian of Revelation. Therefore, in the Catechism, this document that, as we have seen, of its essence appertains to the Church, we would expect to find, and in fact we do find, this fundamental structure of the Christian faith: the positivity of the content of our faith which precedes our apprehension of the same faith.

The positivity of the catechism – its status as not being made by the believer but as preceding the believer’s assent– is not a stumbling block for the believer, nor is it grounds for rejecting the Catechism a “sure norm”. It is, rather, one of the conditions of possibility for an authentic act of faith in the God who reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ. We might put it this way: the positivity of the Catechism finds its foundation in the otherness of the revelation of God “who can neither deceive nor be deceived.”7

The historicity of the Catechism

The Catechism was written more than two decades ago and there can be no doubt it is a product of its time, but simply stating this does not necessarily entail that it is now obsolete. Nor does the admission of the historical and culturally conditioned nature of the Catechism undermine its status as “a sure norm” for us. Far from trapping us in the blind alley of historical relativism, the presence of a historical and cultural provenance is exactly what one would expect of an ecclesial document. The Church is founded by Christ. We have said it before but it bears repetition, in Christ the eternal Word of God enters into human history. God in becoming man draws the conditions of time and space to himself. The eternal Word is born in a particular place, at a particular time and within a particular culture. The Incarnation does not nullify human history , rather the conditions of human history become the means through which God reveals himself to humanity. The historicity of the Incarnation is, of course, shared by the Church that Christ founded and, consequently, the Catechism, precisely because it is a document of the Church, also exhibits a historical quality.

As I have written in my Katholische Dogmatik:

In effect one of the essential constitutive elements of Christian revelation is its transmission in history […]In this way the theme of historicity does not constitute a threat to the dogmatic concept of truth (i.e as a relativisation of essentialist “eternal” truths). Quite the opposite is true. Christian dogmatic theology has as its point of departure the self-revelation of God in history.8

In the Incarnation God gives himself to us in history and, therefore, it is futile for us to look for some sort of ahistorical revelation. Because of the Incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus Christ, the conditions of human history are now precisely where we look to find God.

Moreover, historicity is a fundamental element of the human condition. We are historical beings. Therefore, if we are to come to know God we will experience this knowing within the conditions of history. As I have written:

The radical possibility of receiving information from reality is experienced in history .[italics added] In this way the historicity of human reason does not lead to the relativisation of its capacity for truth or the impossibility of reaching a knowledge of God.9

The Catechism’s mode of expression and the concepts used are historically and culturally conditioned. They reflect the history of the Church and the human striving, under the influence of God’s grace, to articulate the self communication of God. This, however, is not a stumbling block. One must remember that God reveals himself in history to historical beings. An ahistorical statement of the Church’s faith would misrepresent both God’s revelation and our reception of this revelation as human beings. Consequently, insofar as the Catechism is an instrument whose finality is that of drawing us into discipleship and a relationship with God, historicity is one of its necessary facets. Were the Catechism not historical, it could not be “a sure norm”.

The Socially Shared status of the Catechism

The Catechism is a public document and therefore it uses shared language. Consequently it raises issues about the relationship between the private internal faith of the individual and these public shared words of the Catechism. What is the function of these words with regard to the individual believer?

Fundamentally words communicate an intellectual content, a meaning, which by the act of communication they render publically accessible. Words then have a double reference. They express, first, a meaning, but, secondly, this meaning is addressed to an audience. St. Augustine draws our attention to this in his great homily on the birth on St. John the Baptist. He writes:

When I think about what I am going to say, the word or message is already in my heart. When I want to speak to you, I look for a way to share with your heart what is already in mine. In my search for a way to let this message reach you, so that the word already in my heart may find place also in yours, I use my voice to speak to you. The sound of my voice brings the meaning of the word to you and then passes away. The word which the sound has brought to you is now in your heart, and yet it is still also in mine.10

This then is the relationship between the individual believer and the public discourse of the Catechism. It communicates and makes common that which the individual holds. Words, as acts of communication, therefore, render possible a communion of minds, and consequently of hearts, between individuals.

We see here again the ecclesiality of the Catechism. As public discourse it is ordered to the establishment of a unity of mind and heart. It is ordered to the establishment of community. Specifically it is ordered to the establishment of the community of the Church. The Catechism is supposed “to make disciples” but not disciples as isolated individuals because as the Catechism itself states:

No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. the believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others. Our love for Jesus and for our neighbour impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith (CCC 166).

The social implications of the Catechism’s public nature bring into sharp relief the lived dimension of the Catholic faith. We have this afternoon been doing theology, using our minds, but it is important to remember the Catechism is not just about ideas. It is a document of the Church’s faith and the faith of the Church touches every aspect of the believer’s life. It is not some dry text book or study aid. The Catechism certainly does communicate an intellectual content. Its goal, however, cannot be reduced to a simply academic achievement. The Catechism’s communication of meaning is ultimately directed towards the bringing about of a communion of hearts and minds in the things of God. The goal of the catechism is unity among believers in the shared glorification of God. Pope Francis notes, “Christ gathers to himself all those who believe and makes them his body, so the Christian comes to see himself as a member of this body, in an essential relationship with all other believers” [italics added].11 Within this ecclesial communion we encounter “God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship” However as Pope Francis notes this ecclesial communion is not a closed circle. In this encounter with God’s love “we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”12

Conclusion

Our consideration of the Catechism of the Catholic Church this afternoon has brought to light its ecclesiality, that is, its status as a document of the Church. In the light of this status we have been able to explore and resolve some issues that the Catechism might raise. It is clear that neither the “giveness”, nor the historicity, nor the shared status of the Catechism’s discourse undermine its role as “a sure norm for teaching the faith”. I would therefore take this moment to encourage you if you do not yet own to own a copy of the Catechism to buy one. I would encourage you to read it and to study it.

I would at this stage draw your attention to the important work that is being done to adapt the Catechism to the needs of different groups. In particular I would cite the example of YouCat. No doubt this will have to be updated at some stage but it shows how flexible and useful a resource the Catechism can be. Why shouldn’t this wonderful resource of the Catechism be adapted for different needs and different contexts. It is noted in the Catechism itself:

By design, this Catechism does not set out to provide the adaptation of doctrinal presentations and catechetical methods required by the differences of culture, age, spiritual maturity, and social and ecclesial condition among all those to whom it is addressed. Such indispensable adaptations are the responsibility of particular catechisms and, even more, of those who instruct the faithful

The Catechism is an extraordinary resource for all those involved in the work of evangelisation. It should be the foundation of all our Catechetical programs. We should base our sacraments programs around the Catechism. When young couples come to us wanting to get married our marriage preparation programs should be immersed in the Church’s wisdom about this great sacrament and what better to turn to as a resource than the Catechism which “a sure norm for teaching the faith”. No Catholic household should be without a copy of the Catechism. When those couple come back to us as parents come to us seeking baptism for their children we could take that as an opportunity once again to turn to the catechism as a nourishment to their vocations as parents. The same with Holy Communion and the same with Confirmation. Our youth work is not just social work it should have catechesis as one of its aims. We should propose to our young better a better more noble and more beautiful way of living. The catechism is a powerful resource to help us in the proposing of that vision. Pope Francis himself has said “the Catechism of the Catholic Church, […] is a fundamental aid for that unitary act with which the Church communicates the entire content of her faith: "all that she herself is, and all that she believes."13

Finally addressing myself in particularly to you seminarians and futures priests, use the Catechism as a point of reference in your studies now. Familiarize yourself with it and its structure. I’ve known priests who have used especially the fourth section on Christian prayer as their spiritual reading or the subject for their meditation. If you find this fruitful I would encourage you in this. Get to know the Catechism now because it will serve you well in the future.

When eventually you find yourselves in your parishes and you are preparing your homilies and catecheses turn to the Catechism. Remember as priests the faithful look to you not for your private opinions, they look to you in order to know the faith of the Church. You do not have to go to the ends of the earth to find this faith because in the Catechism you have “a sure norm for teaching the faith”.

If, as a last resort, I can make an appeal to your laziness! You will be busy in parishes and your time will be precious. In the Catechism you have “a sure norm” to which you can always refer. You do not have to reinvent the wheel, besides which I doubt very much you will have either the time or the energy to do so, but you do have the Catechism as a rich resource to help you in your task as “fishers of men.”


[1] Pope John Paul II, Fidei Depositum.

[2] J. Ratzinger and C. Schönborn. Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), p.7.

[3] Pope John Paul II, Fidei Depositum.

[4] J. Ratzinger and C. Schönborn op. cit., p.26.

[5] St. Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah, Prologue, PL 24,17.

[6] Pope John Paul II, Fidei Depositum.

[7] Dei Filius 3: DS 3008

[8] G. Müller, Katholische Dogmatik Für Studium und Praxis der Theologie (Freiburg: Herder, 2012), p.38, [unpublished translation].

[9] Ibid.

[10] St. Augustine, Sermon 293PL 38, 1328.

[11] Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei 22.

[12] Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 8.

[13] Pope Francis, Lumen Fidei, 46.

© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2014

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